A black and white close-up photo of indie artist Angel Olsen, with her hands interlocked and resting over her head

Exploring Angel Olsen’s Sonic Landscape

By Ralph David
Music Journalist

Angel Olsen’s fragile yet powerful voice has been a staple of the indie scene since the early 2010s. With tales of heartbreak and loneliness, it is not hard to see how Olsen’s vulnerability has made her a critical darling among publications. Olsen’s ever-improving songwriting skills allows her to revisit consistent lyrical themes without sounding stale. 

However, what is perhaps the most impressive aspect of her discography is her ability to expand on the sonic landscape of each album while still maintaining her trademark relatability and vulnerability. All Mirrors, Olsen’s latest studio album, features a string section on almost every song and makes her journey from intimate folk ballads to full-on art pop worthy of exploration.

Olsen’s debut album, Half Way Home, was released in 2012 and established her as an artist capable of crafting compelling songs with elegant wordplay and emotional weight. In many ways, this album introduced many formulas for songs that Olsen would continue to expand and perfect as her career advanced. 

At her most skeletal, Half Way Home is almost completely comprised of minimalist instrumentation. A majority of tracks such as “Acrobat” and “You are Song” are made up of Olsen’s strong voice and an acoustic guitar. This style of ballad is common throughout her discography, but her evolving sound gives new life to the formula. 

“Lonely Universe” is another song that laid the groundwork for what would be a mainstay of an Angel Olsen album. Over seven minutes long, the song starts with a simple drum pattern and a guitar. New chords are sprinkled in as the song progresses, eventually rising to a dramatic conclusion at the end of the song. These seven minute opuses typically serve as the emotional crux of her albums.

Olsen’s sophomore album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, was released in 2014. Burn Your Fire For No Witness gave Olsen a chance to build on the folk influences that were so prevalent on Half Way Home and introduced more elements of rock that she would develop in later albums. “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “Hi-five” interpolate rock influences that we had not seen from Olsen yet. As she explores these new influences, Olsen still maintains the same folk feel from her previous album with tracks like “Enemy” and “Window.”

After the release of  Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Olsen explained that she felt she had been pigeonholed as the “sad-girl guitarist.” Her desire to shed this image is reflected sonically on her third album, My Woman. The front half of the album is composed of guitar solos and energetic drumming. Many of the songs completely abandon the folksy texture of her previous two albums.

“Intern” kicks off My Woman and wastes no time tackling the the preconceptions one might have about Olsen’s music. The song features synths, a first for Olsen, but still retains the vulnerability of tracks like “Acrobat.” “Shut Up Kiss Me” leans heavily into garage rock and shows off Olsen’s ability to fit right in with the new electric guitars and wild drumming.

Clocking in at almost eight minutes, “Sister” is the true magnum opus of My Woman. In usual fashion, the song opens with a sparse instrumentation and eventually builds into a huge climax. “All my life I thought I’d change” chants Olsen right before a monster of a guitar solo is unleashed, almost serving as her sonic transformation from “sad-girl guitarist” to bonafide indie rock star.

Finally, we have reached her latest and most extravagant album to date. Released in October of 2019, All Mirrors double downs on the departure from the haunting guitar ballads that composed her first two albums. All Mirrors introduces a 12-piece orchestra that pushes the climaxes of her songs to new heights. Olsen also brings in even more synths that mesh perfectly with the orchestra, giving the album a cinematic feeling. 

An excellent example of this would be the title track. It opens with chilling synths that end up intertwining beautifully with the orchestra by the end of the song. The most interesting part of the track is that it still somehow sounds like an Angel Olsen song, despite sonically evolving so far ahead of her first album. Despite being grander than ever, the haunting intimacy of Olsen’s music never leaves. 

“Tonight” has Olsen quietly singing along with a small section of the orchestra. Olsen and the strings exchange volumes frequently throughout the song, as if they were singing a duet together. Slowly Olsen fades out, and the entire orchestra takes over for a gorgeous and heart wrenching outro.

Angel Olsen’s development from folk inspired lyricist to grand art popper is one of the most interesting arcs of this decade in music. Her ability to incorporate completely new sounds throughout her career while still maintaining the feeling of her original album is no small feat. If the last eight years are any indicator of what is to come, then the next eight will bring on even more incredible work.

Featured image by Angel Olsen via Twitter.

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